Italo Calvino (1923-1985)

Petri Liukkonen


Journalist, short story writer and novelist, experimental writer whose imaginative fabulations made him one of the most important Italian fiction writers of the 20th century. Calvino's career as a writer spanned nearly four decades.

"After forty years of writing fiction, after exploring various roads and making diverse experiments, the time has come for me to look for an overall definition of my work. I would suggest this: my working method has more often than not involved the subtraction of weight. I have tried to remove weight, sometimes from people, sometimes from heavenly bodies, sometimes from cities; above all I have tried to remove weight from the structure of stories and from language." (from Six Memos for the Next Millennium, 1988)

Italo Calvino was born in Santiago de las Vegas, Cuba, of Italian parents. "I will begin by saying that I was born under the sign of Libra," he once said. (Libra is the 7th sign of the zodiak, operative September 24-October 23; the word for book in Italian is libro.) Calvino moved with his family in Italy in his youth and spent his early years in San Remo. Calvino studied at the University of Turin (1941-47) and Royal University in Florence (1943). During the World War II he was drafted into the Young Fascists in 1940, but he left and sought refuge in the Alps. There he joined the Communist Resistance in the Ligurian mountains. From these experiences he drew inspiration for his first stories.

"The sea rose and fell against the rocks of the mole, making the fishing boats sway, and dark-skinned men were filling them with red nets and lobster pots for the evening's fishing. The water was calm, with just a slight continual change of color, blue and black, darker farthest away. I thought of the expanses of water like this, of the infinite grains of soft sand down there at the bottom of the sea where the currents leave white shells washed clean by the waves." (from 'The Argentine Ant' in Adam, One Afternoon, 1949)
After the war Calvino graduated from the University of Turin and worked for the communist periodical L'Unit¨¢ in 1945 as a journalist and for Einaudi publishing house from 1948 to 1984. He wrote for various periodicals throughout his life, including L'Unit¨¢, La Nostra Lotta, Il Garibaldino, Voce della Democrazia, Contemporaneo, Citt¨¢ Aperta, and La Republica. From 1959 to 1967 he edited with Elio Vittorini the magazine Il Menab¨® di letteratura. In 1952 he travelled to the Soviet Union and in 1959-60 to the United States. He married Ester Judith Singer in 1964 and in 1967 he moved to Paris, and then to Rome in 1979.

Following in the footsteps of Cesare Pavese, Calvino signed up with the Turin-based publishers Einaudi. Calvino's first novel, Il sentiero dei nidi di ragno (1947) depicted resistance movement, seen through the eyes of a young boy and in Neorealistic manner. The work was noted for its fablelike twists in the narrative. Il visconte dimezzato (1952) marked Calvino's break with the common themes connected with the experience of war. It told the story of a man cut in half by a cannonball during the Turkish-Christian war. The publication of the novel provoked a debate of realism by the Italian Communist party.

In the 1950s published fantastic tales, hovering between allegory and pure fantasy, brought Calvino international acclaim and established his reputation as one of the most important Italian fiction writers of the 20th century. Il visconte dimezzato was followed by Il barone rampante (1957), in which an 18th-century baron's son climbs a tree and ends up spending his life in various treetops. Il cavaliere inesistente (1959) completed the trilogy, which gave precedence to fantasy outside the general neorealistic vein. Behind the playful spinning of tales also can been seen Calvino's questioning about the relationship between the individual conscience and the course of history. In Marcovalco (1963), a collection of fables, Calvino satirized the modern, destructive urban way of living. Marcovalco is a Chaplinisque character, an ordinary working man and a father, who desperately longs for beauty and sinks in his daydreams whenever he can. When everybody leaves the city in August, he enjoys the empty streets. His peace is interrupted by a television group - it wants to interview the only person who is not on holiday.

In the post-1956 period, marked by the events in Hungary which were to cause Calvino to leave the Italian Communist Party, Calvino devoted himself more to journalism than to fiction. When Calvino left the Party he felt deeply distressed and wrote: "Having grown up in times of dictatorship, and being overtaken by total war when of military age, I still have the notion that to live in peace and freedom is a frail kind of good fortune that might be taken away from me in an instant." In one article Calvino asked, "Was I Stalinist Too?"

Calvino visited New York first time in 1959 and came to regard it as "my city". His 'American Diary 1959-60' consisted of letters written to colleagues. Calvino was amazed of the size of the fridges and how ignorant Americans were of Italian writing. In 1964 he went to Paris to strengthen his ties with the latest innovative trends. However, in La nuvola di smog (1965) the author returned for awhile to the social-realistic mode to satirize the industrial society. Le cosmicomiche (1965) set the concepts of evolution against cosmic scales. Through the boasting accounts of Qfwfq, who is as old as the universe, Calvino questions all the basic concepts of scientific theories. Qfwfq changes constantly - it has been a fish, and the last dinosaur. When his dear friend says, "Boys, the noodles I would make for you!", this outburst of general love initiates "at the same moment the concept of space and, properly speaking, space itself, and time, and universal gravitation, and the gravitation universe, making possible billions and billions of suns, and of planets, and fields of wheat..." In Il Castello dei destini incrociati (1973) Calvino found his source of inspiration in two ancient packs of tarot cards. The novel represented a type of open text that allows for a similar variety of possible readings.

"Waiting in line, Mr Palomar contemplates the jars. He tries to find a place in his memories for cassoulet, a rich stew of meats and beans, in which goose-fat is an essential ingredient; but neither his palate's memory nor his cultural memory is of any help to him. And yet the name, the sight, the idea attract him, awaken an immediate fantasy not so much of appetite as of eros: from a mountain of goose-fat a female figure surfaces, smears white over her rosy skin, and he already imagines himself making his way towards her through those thick avalanches, embracing her, sinking with her." (from Mister Palomar, 1983)

Invisible Cities (1972) was a surreal fantasy in which Marco Polo invents dream-cities to amuse Kubla Khan - a city on stilts, a city made of waterpipes, a spiderweb city, a city that cannot be forgotten and so on. Polo's principle as a storyteller is: "Falsehood is never in the words, it is in the things." In Isidore, one of the Cities of Memory, "the foreigner hesitating between two women always encounters a third, and in Zirma one sees "a girl walking with a puma on a leash," and one leaves "Tamara without having discovered it." The Great Khan's labyrinthine empire becomes a metaphor of the universe itself. Calvino won with the book the prestigious Premio Felrinelli Award. Of Calvino's If on a Winter's Night a Traveller (1979), Salman Rushdie declared: "He is writing down what you have always known except that you've never thought of it before."

Le citt¨¢ invisibili concist of a conversation between an imaginary Marco Polo and an imaginary Kublai Khan. Marco Polo describes a series of surreal cities in the Khan's domain. Each city is charactericized by a unique quality or concept and they are all named for women. The novel is divided into nine parts. The first and last parts contain five vignettes between the framing narratives. The opening introduces the work as a collection of traveler's tales to which the emperor listens even though he does not necessary believe them. The Khan tries to find significance from Marco Polo's fragmented tales. He is old and weary of power and soon the reader understands that the true story is the ongoing debate between the visionary Marco and the skeptical Kublai - youth against age. The end suggest that the promised land that the Khan seeks is unattainable. The last words are given to Polo, who speaks for what is still hopeful in the reader: although we are in "the inferno of the living" we can accept it and cease to be conscious of it.

In Se una notte d'inverno unviaggiatore ( If on a Winter's Night a Traveller) the story alternates the opening chapters of 10 different novels, and opens with a man discovering that the copy of the novel he has recently purchased is defective, a Polish novel having been bound within its pages. When he returns to the bookshop he meets a young woman, and they find out that their texts are 10 exerpts that parody the genres of conteporary fiction. The book includes instalments of a discourse on the experience of reading. Responsible for the 10 opening chapters might be a literary translator, whose intrigues the fantastical narrative concerns. Calvino seems to consider reading over writing.

Calvino died of cerebral hemorrhage in Siena, on September 19, 1985. His later essays Le lezioni americane were published posthumously. From the collection Under a Jaguar Sun (1991), stories on the five senses, 'sight' and 'touch' were never completed. Calvino works in it around five central qualities of good fiction - lightness, quickness, exactitude, visibility, and multiplicity. In The Uses of Literature (1980) Calvino noted that there should be a time "in adult life devoted to revisiting the most important books of our youth. Even if the books have remained the same (though they do change, in the light of an altered historical perspective), we have most certainly changed, and our encounter will be an entirely new thing."

For further reading: Understanding Italo Calvino by Beno Weiss (1993); Calvino's Fictions by Kathryn Hume (1992); Calvino and the Age of Neorealism by Lucia Re (1990); Calvino Revisited, ed. by Franco Ricci (1989); Introduzione a Calvino by Christina Benussi (1989); Italo Calvino: Introduzione e guida allo studio dell'opera Calviniana, storia e antologia della critica by Giorgia Baroni (1988); Italo Calvino by Albert Howard Carter (1987); Italo Calvino: Writer and Critic by JoAnn Cannon (1981); Calvino: The Writer as Fablemaker by Sara Maria Adler (1979); Invito alla lettura di Italo Calvino by Giuseppe Bonura (1972); Italo Calvino: A Reappraisal and an Appreciation of the Trilogy by J.R. Woodhouse (1968); Calvino by G.P. Bottino (1967) - For further information: - Great Science-Fiction and Fantasy Works - Other masters of allegorical fantasy: Umberto Eco, Vladimir Nabokov, G¨¹nter Grass - See also: Magic Realism

Selected bibliography:

Il sentiero dei nidi di ragno, 1947 - The Path to the Nest of Spiders

Ultimo viene il corvo, 1949 - Adam, One Afternoon, and Other Stories

Il visconte dimezzato, 1952 - The Cloven Viscount - suom. Halkaistu varakreivi

Fiable italiane, 1956 - Italian Folktales

Il barone rampante, 1957 - The Baron in the Trees - suom. Paroni puussa, suom. Pentti Saarikoski

Il cavaliere inesistente, 1959 - The Nonexistent Knight - suom. Ritari joka ei ollut olemassa, suom. Pentti Saarikoski

I nostri antenati, 1960 - Our Ancestors

Marcovaldo; ovvero, le stagioni in citt¨¢, 1963 - Marcovaldo; or, The Seasons in the City

La nuvola di smog, 1965 - Smog, published in Difficult Loves; Smog; A Plunge into Real Estate

Le cosmicomiche, 1965 - Cosmicomics - suom. Kosmokomiikkaa

Ti con zero, 1967 - T zero

Le citt¨¢ invisibli, 1972 - Invisible cities - suom. Näkymättömät kaupungit

Il castello dei destini incrociati, 1973 - The Castle of Crossed Destines

Se una notte d'inverno un viaggiatore, 1979 - If on a winter's night traveller - suom. Jos talviyönä matkamies

Una pietra sopra: Discorsi di letteratura e societ¨¢, 1980 - The Uses of Literature

Palomar, 1983 - Mister Palomar - suom. Herra Palomar

Lezioni americane: Sei proposte per il prossimo millenio, 1988 - Six Memos for the Next Millenium

Perch¨¦ leggere i classici, 1991

Hermit in Paris: Autobiographical Writings, 2003

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